TWENTY YEARS AND 3 MAYORS LATER

Giuliani sprays New York with toxic pesticides. Bloomberg and now deBlasio continue Giuliani’s “legacy”.  Painting by Robert Lederman.

NYC’S GOVERNMENT again sprays the Bronx and other parts of the City with adulticides to kill mosquitoes, with no thought given to how the toxic spray of the Bayer Corp.’s  pyrethroid DeltaGard (with the cancer-causing piperonyl butoxide) intersects with the Covid-19 pandemic and what that means for the already endangered population of the Bronx.

Twenty years ago the No Spray Coalition sued the Giuliani administration to stop the spraying. Today, despite the Coalition’s victory in federal court, the deBlasio administration continues to repeat the mendacity of the Giuliani administration with a stupidity all its own.

In 2007, the No Spray Coalition — the grassroots group founded in 1999 to oppose New York City’s spraying of pesticides  to kill mosquitoes said to be carrying West Nile virus—met with Julius Spiegel, then Brookyn commissioner of City parks. Also present was Jean Halloran of Consumers Union, and a biologist working for the New York City Parks Department. The No Spray Coalition and Halloran urged the city officials to stop spraying glyphosate not only in the parks but also on New York City’s sidewalks around schoolyards and playgrounds.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio continues Giuliani’s and Bloomberg’s spraying NYC with toxic pesticides in the middle of the pandemic.

The coalition’s representatives (Mitchel Cohen and Connie Lesold) handed Spiegel several studies on the disastrous effects pesticides have, especially on children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems—a solid majority of the people who live in Brooklyn. Spiegel’s parents were Holocaust survivors. He seemed truly concerned with the spraying of the public parks he presided over and of the surrounding sidewalks, which often abutted
children’s playgrounds.

Spiegel explained that more than 70 percent of the Parks Department workforce had been laid off over the preceding decade as a cost-cutting measure, which meant that chemical herbicides were now replacing city workers who had previously weeded public parks and sidewalks by hand.

Of course, spraying Monsanto’s Roundup and other toxins for cosmetic reasons is unnecessary and should simply be stopped. Even small amounts of pesticides are poisonous to children.

Further, what some call “weeds” in today’s urban environment were once upon a time medicinal or nutritious plants used by American Indians and healers. Connie Lesold, a community activist, and Mitchel Cohen both noted in their conversation with Spiegel that the dyes the city had added to the herbicides expressly to warn the public to “stay away” were having an unintended opposite effect. Lesold lived along Eastern Parkway, a main traffic artery cutting across the heart of Brooklyn, and had observed children attracted to the bright yellow and green areas, which they saw as play zones. Mitchel Cohen also witnessed numerous children in Coney Island rolling around in the newly sprayed weeds and riding their bicycles and scooters through them. They tracked the chemicals into their classrooms and parents’ apartments. So the first of No Spray’s suggestions (apart from the main demand that all spraying be stopped at once) was that the Parks Department at least inform teachers when spraying would be occuring near schools and parks, and have them warn students to stay away from those areas. Spiegel agreed with the coalition’s proposal to contact all school principals in advance of any spraying by the city, who would then inform their young students to stay away from those areas.

New York City’s biologist didn’t agree. He defended the use of Roundup, as well as the spraying of pesticides to kill mosquitoes. Glyphosate, he said, was “perfectly safe—unless you are a weed.” Commissioner Spiegel, however, took note of the city biologist’s arrogance and overruled him. He agreed to implement the proposal and thought favorably of a second one: to set up a pilot project in which volunteers would take responsibility for hand-weeding unsprayed sections along Eastern Parkway. This too was opposed by the city’s biologist, who now appeared to be taking personally No Spray’s criticisms of the herbicide. Officials, activists learned, are frequently wary of establishing a prototype relying on the mobilizing of local volunteers—risky business for those in positions of authority, whenever people get together around any project and begin to discover their own power.

The city’s biologist sneered: “What do you propose for areas where you can’t get volunteers?” Mitchel Cohen’s reply came as a shock: Goats. Sheep. He had recently met Lani Malmberg, a sheep and goat herder from Wyoming, at a Beyond Pesticides conference in Washington, DC. Beyond Pesticides was one of the organizations (along with Disabled in Action, Save Organic Standards, and the Brooklyn Greens) that had joined with the No Spray Coalition in suing New York City’s government to stop its aerial and truck-spraying of chemical pesticides. Beyond Pesticides—formerly the National Coalition Against Misuse of Pesticides—sponsored annual gatherings of activists, scientists, and occasionally government officials, who would strategize ways to vastly reduce, if not outright ban, the use of chemical pesticides. Lani explained that she travels around the western United States bringing hundreds of animals to “weed” urban areas. This approach seemed both beautiful artistically and functional—a way to solve problems in line with nature, rather than going to war with it — a change from the modus operandi of the pesticide industry.

The city’s biologist ridiculed the idea. Even Spiegel was taken aback by it.

Over the years, more and more people have come to understand the importance of the anti-pesticides work. But activists kept meeting the same intransigence from government officials, even after a federal judge ruled in favor of the No Spray Coalition and against New York City in a lawsuit the Coalition brought under the Clean Water Act, and even after the City administration signed a settlement agreement with the No Spray Coalition that it soon ignored.

When New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, assigned two assistants in 2015 to meet with the Coalition, it became clear that the City had learned nothing in the sixteen years following the filing of the lawsuit; there was no institutional memory. They asked the Coalition’s
Cathryn Swan and Mitchel Cohen the same question: “Which less toxic chemical
sprays should we use?” And they answered with the same response the Coalition had given
Spiegel eight years earlier: “None! Bring in goats, dragonflies, bats!”

But the use of natural predators of the so-called pests in question was to them so far outside the boundaries of the dominant chemical mindset as to seem absurd.

REV. BILLY, SAVITRI D. & The Church of Stop Shopping Choir in NYC’s Foley Square

In the years since the No Spray Coalition first made that proposal, Rev. Billy Talen and Savitri D., the choreographer and director of the Church of Stop Shopping’s performances, led New Yorkers in the fight to block NYC officials from applying Roundup to city parks. Weekly performances of their show, “Monsanto is the Devil,” sold out the fashionable Joe’s Pub in the Public Theater in SoHo and mobilized audiences for protests. At last, in the summer of 2016, goats were finally brought into the city from an upstate New York farm to feed on weeds in a fenced-off section of Prospect Park. The goats chomped happily on the wild plants. Children got to see them “at work,” and appreciated their new connection to nature. That section of the park was safely “weeded” in record time.

Goats eating weeds in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

But instead of expanding the use of goats or assigning workers to weed by hand, the city government continued to spray glyphosate, which bioaccumulates in bone marrow. It also “applied”—and continues to apply—other cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting adulticides throughout the five boroughs, despite the well-documented harmful effects on people and the environment.

As a result of the work of the No Spray Coalition and sister groups such as East Bay Pesticide Alert (Don’t Spray California), Beyond Pesticides, and Organic Consumers Association, California has now listed glyphosate as a likely carcinogen. Meanwhile, an important study (2018) of glyphosate’s affect on pregnant women confirms that the widely used herbicide ends up in women’s bodies and that prenatal glyphosate exposure may be linked to shorter pregnancies and lifelong adverse health consequences for children.

In New York City, Paula Rogovin, a teacher at Public School 290-Manhattan New School on the Upper East Side, and jazz pianist Jill McManus are currently mobilizing students, teachers, and the community to press the City Council and the Mayor to ban all synthetic pesticides from city parks.

While some City Council representatives have signed onto the new legislation introduced by Manhattan Council representative Ben Kallos, and despite the increasing consciousness over the dangers of pesticides, environmental and health activists are at every turn confronted by corporate power, corporate profiteering, corporate control of investments to government officials, and corporate ways of thinking that Monsanto and others, in conjunction with governments, propagate at the expense of future biodiversity and children’s health.

With the City now in 2020 having begun to apply massive quantities of Bayer/Monsanto’s Roundup and DeltaGard in the Bronx and throughout the City, environmental and health activists have their work cut out for them. What we do today makes all the difference in whether there will even be a future in which to argue the finer points of our philosophies, theories, and proposals. But it needs to be done.

We need to force the City, as well as munipalities across the country, to stop the applications of toxic pesticides and herbicides, and make it a national issue that hopefully the presidential candidates will treat seriously.

There’s a saying from the 1960s: “The future will be what we the people struggle to make it.” While micro-organisms will no doubt continue to thrive no matter what, humans won’t. The fate of complex life on this planet, including human life, is in our hands.

(excerpted from Mitchel Cohen’s book, The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup: The Politics of Pesticides (SkyHorse publishers: 2019), available by clicking here.)Book Cover The Fight Against Monsanto's Roundup Mitchel Cohen

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